Many indigenous peoples and religious groups place great value on what we might call “extraordinary experiences of consciousness” and actively pursue them through rituals, ceremonies, drug use and other techniques. Anthropology’s key research tool of participant observation can open us to this experiential dimension, and there are now a good number of accounts where anthropologists don’t just observe the behaviour of their informants, but weave their own experiences of consciousness into the account (Young & Goulet 1994). This raises fundamental questions about the paradigm through which we view such data.
I here argue for the possibility of developing an experientially based, etic model of consciousness with which to make sense of the varied extraordinary experiences of consciousness that anthropologists collect in the field.
For the purposes of this paper, “extraordinary experience” encompasses altered states of consciousness such as dreams, trance and out-of body experiences, as well as such variety of experiences as telepathy, premonition, perceptions of non-physical beings, poltergeist effects and even uncanny physical sensation.
My own extraordinary experiences started during my first undergraduate summer holidays. On the recommendation of a fellow student I spent time at a meditation center in Solo, Indonesia. The elderly Indonesian teacher taught a fairly simple meditation technique that I started to practice on a daily basis. As a result, my world started to shift. It would be a very long story to describe all that occurred at the center or subsequently and I want to focus on the experiences that related to my later interpretation of ethnographic texts. Some key experiences were:
- out-of-body experiences (OBEs), i.e. being conscious of myself as not in my body and my body as being asleep;
- many experiences of meeting and interacting with non-physical people during sleep states;
- auditory perceptions of voices when there was “nobody” there;
- visually perceiving, during the ordinary waking state, non-physical persons who communicate with me telepathically.
One of the things that helped me was my anthropological reading. I developed a particular fascination with the literature on shamanism and the various spirit cults that exist around the world. I felt I could relate to a lot of the experiences that were being described, including the seemingly neurotic behavior of some shamans (some of my own behaviour probably seemed quite neurotic at times) and people’s relationships with spirits, both good and bad.
I could relate less well to the anthropological modeling of those experiences. Based on my own experiences I considered informants to be describing, through cultural filters, real experiences, which the anthropologists were reducing to metaphor and symbol (Turner 1992). Depending on the analytical model, researchers would argue spirits are actually about power relations between genders, or about the social management of neurosis or used to create social obedience. Only one thing is certain, they can’t be real! As anthropologists we should be the first to realize that this attitude itself is a social construct, a point made by De Martino (2001) many years ago.
Of course not all anthropologists are reductionist. Numerous have exposed their own experiences of, for example, spirit encounter (Turner 1992), guardian spirits (Schwartz 1994) or OBE (Zurfluh 1981). Such accounts, however, usually avoid modeling of the experience, or confine themselves to the emic model of the informants.
Because of the background of the culture for which they are writing, researchers who have extraordinary experiences that they are not prepared to deny find their capacity to discuss them highly circumscribed. Adopting the discourse of the society where the experiences emerged is the most straightforward way of circumventing this social censorship.
But even authors who experietially accept spirits still maintain a resistance to etic modeling. In a significant paper in which she clearly expresses her opinion that there are such things as spirits, Turner asks a series of questions:
“What are spirits?” And I continue with the thorny question, “What of the great diversity of ideas about them throughout the world? How is a student of the anthropology of consciousness, who participates during fieldwork, expected to regard all the conflicting spirit systems in different cultures? Is there not a fatal lack of logic inherent in this diversity?” And the reply: “Is this kind of subject matter logical anyway?” We also need to ask, “Have we the right to force it into logical frameworks?” (Turner 1992:30)
I would suggest that spirit systems across cultures are not as divergent as Turner suggests, that the subject matter is logical, and that we not only have the right but the obligation to create a logical framework if we want to present our research as anything other than interesting, culture specific anecdotes. If we truly want to make a contribution to a wider cross-cultural understanding of consciousness, I would argue our research must be grounded in a paradigm that allows for mutual comprehension of diverse data.
Vieira, a Brazilian consciousness researcher, emphasizes the importance of combining personal experimentation with theoretical research. He argues that we must accept ourselves, the human consciousness, as scientific research instrument through which to obtain data (e.g. Vieira, 1994, 1997, 1999). Anthropologists know only too well, that our tool of participant observation is both our strength and our weakness in the eye of the harder sciences. In Vieira’s approach we engage in participant observation not only of the world around us, but crucially also of our own microuniverse.
Based primarily of a “projection interpretation” of the OBE (Alvarado 2000), Vieira proposes that any understanding of consciousness should be built on what he calls the consciential paradigm, which includes the following premises:
- Consciousness is multidimensional, i.e. it experiences and manifests in more than one dimension, both during the human, physical, experience and in an extraphysical state during the OBE and after death;
- Consciousness is holosomatic, i.e. it uses more than one body (soma), including the physical body, and the psychosoma, a double of the physical body in which we move about during OBEs and which is abundantly recorded in the ethnographic literature;
- The human experience is dominated by bioenergies; i.e. every living creature, including plants, has an energetic body and our interactions with each other and our environment are fundamentally energetic.
Here I can only touch very briefly on each of these highly complex, and no doubt controversial, premises. I argue that they can allow us to discuss a host of spirit experiences and altered states of consciousness without undermining the cultural interpretation of the experience.
For example if we approach consciousness as multidimensional and holosomatic we can make sense of spirit possessions logically and systematically, not as psychological fantasy or a ruse to obtain social standing, but as the interaction between two individuals: one with a body and one without. We could also engage with our informants about their dreams from an understanding that includes the possibility of OBEs as real, shared, experiences beyond the physical body. The concept of bioenergies, finally, has particular relevance to Australian Aboriginal religious experiences, for example the touching and rubbing of sacred objects or natural features during ceremony. More broadly it can provide an analytical anchor to understand a variety of healing and sorcery practices. I have explored these analytic benefits in the context of Aboriginal Australia elsewhere (McCaul 2008).
One advantage of this approach is that it increases our ability to communicate with our informants from a basis of mutual understanding. Of course we can have conversations about spirit beliefs or soul journeys without accepting the accounts as reality, but in my experience if we bring experiential and theoretical understanding to such discussions our empathetic connection to our informants is greatly enhanced and our conversations may take directions not otherwise available to us.
Another benefit would be that we could actually feed some of the understanding we may get from working with cultures with a strong value of extraordinary experiences of consciousness into our own culture. That way we not only improve our understanding of other cultures but enrich our own.
Finally we would open up whole new fields of investigation. For example, consider the following quote by a Western Desert ngangkari, or traditional healer:
“Ananagu doctors work with the spirit of the sick person, both when he or she is awake and when he or she is asleep. Ngangkari work at night when all is quiet, gliding among people’s sleeping spirits similar to the way an eagle soars. Ngangkari have special tools called ‘mapanpa’. Ngangkari travel in their spirit bodies at night, meeting up and conferring with each other. Ngangkari do not travel like this in ones and twos; they gather in large groups from extensive areas.” (Wanatjura, 2003, 15)
This comment suggests a potential field of nocturnal investigation, fieldwork during our sleep so to speak, but only if we are prepared to participate in this particular manifestation of consciousness, the OBE.
Participative anthropology of consciousness
This points to a fundamental element of what I am proposing, namely that to work with the consciential paradigm we need to go beyond theory and participate in the experiences of consciousness we are discussing, including OBEs and contact with extraphysical consciousnesses (i.e. spirits).
This produces a certain limitation, because this is not everybody’s thing. In fact I would suggest that, at least for the time being, this sort of research would be limited to a small number of researchers who are that way inclined and prepared to undergo the requisite training. Charles Tart’s work on state-specific sciences has relevance here.
In discussing the difficulty of consensual validation of states of consciousness Tart argues that such research and its validation will need to be undertaken by highly trained individuals - like in any other scientific investigation …
Public observation, …, almost always refers to a limited, specially trained public. It is only by basic agreement among those specially trained people that data become accepted as a foundation for the development of science. That laymen cannot replicate the observations is of little relevance. (Tart, 1998)
Just as the advanced mathematician will struggle to find a receptive audience among laypeople, so the advanced projector might struggle; but in neither case does it mean that what they have to say may not be useful. In the case of anthropology, the science that studies the human being, I would argue a full exploration of extraordinary experiences of consciousness really goes to the core of the discipline.
Alvarado, Carlos. 2000. Out-Of-Body Experiences. Varieties of Anomalous Experience:
Examining the Scientific Evidence. Etzel Cardeña, Steven Jay Lynn and Stanley Krippner, eds. Pp. 183-218 Washington: American Psychological Association
De Martino, Ernesto 2001 . Sciamanismo e fenomenologia paranormale. Metapsichica
McCaul, Kim. 2008. The persistence of traditional Aboriginal healers in the 21st century and of anthropology’s struggle to understand them. Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia. 33: 129-166.
Schwartz, Lisa. 1994. Being changed by cross cultural encounters. Pp. 209-236 in Young, David E. & Goulet, Jean-Guy (eds.). Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: the anthropology of extraordinary experience; Broadview Press: Peterborough
Tart, Charles 1998. Investigating altered states of consciousness on their own terms: A proposal for the creation of state-specific sciences. Journal of the Brazilian Association for the advancement of science 50, 2/3 March/June: 103-116 (accessed on internet at http://www.paradigm-sys.com/ctt_articles2.cfm?id=42)
Turner, Edith 1992. The reality of spirits. ReVision 15 (1): 28-32
Vieira, Waldo 1994. 700 Experimentos da Conscientiologia. Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Internacional de Projeciologia e Conscienciologia
Vieira, Waldo 1997. Projections of the consciousness. (2nd English edition) Alvaro Salgado, Kevin de La Tour, Simone de La Tour, trans. Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Internacional de Projeciologia e Conscienciologia
Vieira, Waldo 1999. Projeciologia: Panorama das Experiências da Consciência Fora do Corpo Humano. 4th edition (revised and expanded). Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Internacional de Projeciologia e Conscienciologia (also available in English translation)
Wanatjura, Elsie. 2003. Preface. in Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council (ed.) Ngankari Work - Anangu Way. NPY Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation: Alice Springs
Young, David E. & Goulet, Jean-Guy (Eds.). 1994. Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: the anthropology of extraordinary experience; Broadview Press: Peterborough
Zurfluh, Werner. 1981. Ausserkörperlich durch die Löcher des Netzes fliegen. Pp. 473-504 in Duerr, Hans Peter (ed.). Der Wissenschaftler und das Irrationale: Band 1, Beitrage aus Ethnologie und Anthropologie. Syndikat: Frankfurt am Main